How does a young, aimless man go from failed comic to corporate-wellness hack to revered lifestyle guru? Pretty easily, it turns out. Author Sam Lipsyte presents a hero for our times in Hark, a meditation on belief and optimism pushing up against political upheaval. The writer’s scope has widened from his previous novel, the superb Gen-X character study The Ask. Indeed, here’s the latest instance of a seasoned, acerbic novelist suddenly on the hunt for a target — see recent efforts from Gary Shteyngart and Salman Rushdie — vying to make sense of the absurd present.
Yet Hark’s vibe ranges from timeless to dated, even as it strains to hit post-2016 notes — referring to “the end of men” and what “it takes to just be an average guy in America.” Set in a plausible near future, Hark follows its titular messiah’s inner circle, including Fraz, a 47-year-old guy in a dying marriage, and Kate, a rich young woman recently found guilty of manslaughter (in the death of her creepy uncle). The novel playfully explores what draws this miserable, diverse group to nonsense, but its foundation — a listless ensemble without a spark in the bunch — crumbles.
Which is a real shame, because fans of Lipsyte — also behind Venus Drive and the great Home Land — will pick up traces of his best work. He’s particularly good in the abstract in Hark, building out his premise and shaping a god complex for an “end of men” world. Of Hark unwittingly developing a following — assuming the role of “not-so-humble messenger” — Lipsyte writes: “It was a confusing feeling, almost like another puberty, but without the suicidal ideation and street acne.” The author also considers and grapples with hope as it exists in a moment saturated with information and dread: “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief.”
Lipsyte, in the most general sense, understands how figures like Hark rise. He traces that evolution incisively, bringing a refreshingly light touch to his dystopia-adjacent novel — not marred by perfunctory nihilism, not fixated on educating or warning, not limited to cynical apocalyptic pronouncements. This feels like a step forward for the Trump-era satire. But then we’re missing a reason to invest. Lipsyte seems all but divorced from his characters, realizing them with a crippling sameness. Hark’s most insightful passages could be attributed to anyone; even as they describe or refer to specific people in the book, there’s no specificity to them. The emotional connection is lacking. The story scatters between its principals, starting slow before rushing for a plot, an arc, an ending, a purpose.
So we get Hark, first and foremost, avoiding the spotlight as others blindly push him into it, prodding him to flesh out his concepts of “mental archery” and “focus” — on what, he doesn’t say — and his bizarre mix of healing “poses.” (Hark’s philosophy, it bears clarifying, is completely meaningless, and even he’s fairly aware of this.) We get Kate, balancing an unconventional organ-delivery side hustle with funding the Hark show, while leaving room for some stiff dude bantering. (On one page alone, she says, reiterating the language of men around her, “I dig yours” and “that was my hard-charging wisecrack” and “my gal crack.”) We get Fraz in counseling with his wife, Tovah, who’s battling an attraction to her husband’s douchey, bro-y family friend. We get Teal, another core believer: described as mixed-race, fresh out of prison for embezzling, and working toward becoming a social worker — partly by working as Fraz and Tovah’s low-rate marriage counselor. Teal is poorly conceived, indicative of where Hark goes so wrong. She meets Lipsyte’s authorial demands rather than emerging as a full human being. She goes from bruised, lonely ex-con to loony therapist straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie, hitting surreal-sitcom beats. She’s interchangeable.
As for where Hark goes: Nefarious figures enter the picture, a frightening accident hurtles everyone toward a final act, and the last pages allude to big, broad, despairing forces and imminent catastrophe. In this conclusion, the writing again shines, aggressive and impassioned. But the showcase is misplaced. Whatever capital-I Important themes Lipsyte is reaching for — nodding toward the corporatization of wellness and our newly fragmented way of life — Hark is not the novel to deliver them, circling around a bullseye it never quite hits. Lipsyte’s still a compelling stylist, but here, crafty sentences function like unfulfilled promises, winding toward profundity that never arrives. C+